Refugees and migrants have become the underclass, desperate, hungry and pleading for help but forced to the back of the line. File picture: Bongani Shilubane/African News Agency (ANA
Refugees and migrants have become the underclass, desperate, hungry and pleading for help but forced to the back of the line. File picture: Bongani Shilubane/African News Agency (ANA

Refugees being forced to the back of the line

By Shannon Ebrahim Time of article published Jun 30, 2020

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Pretoria - South Africa has long been home to surging numbers of refugees from the continent, who came to our shores in desperate need of a safe haven from war, persecution and torture. We allowed them to stay amongst us in our communities and informal settlements as we couldn’t bear the idea of putting them in refugee camps.

The memories of what our comrades endured during the Struggle against apartheid have not faded - living in refugee camps across the continent where food was scarce and conditions were dire.

In many African countries refugees are not allowed to seek employment or move about freely - their plight has made them prisoners. In a progressive, democratic society we have not wanted to impose these conditions on fellow human beings.

But now our resources are stretched to breaking point, our hospitals are full, our food lines littered with thousands of our own citizens desperate for food, and we can no longer cope.

The humanity we genuinely wanted to show the persecuted has quickly dissipated. Refugees and migrants have become the underclass, trapped within the confines of a situation they cannot control. They are desperate, hungry and pleading for help, but are being forced to the back of the line.

The UN Refugee Agency in South Africa tells me that 95% of the calls they are being inundated with are from refugees in dire need of food and financial assistance.

Many were evicted from their places of residence during the lockdown as they lost their ability to earn an income. Many refugees are being denied food after waiting hours in long lines because they didn’t have the right ID number on their paperwork.

These are our African brothers and sisters from the DRC, Zimbabwe, Ethiopia, Somalia and Nigeria who have hit rock bottom, like many of our own.

Of the over 273 000 refugees in the country, 84% come from sub-Saharan Africa. Many of these refugees did not find safe refuge in their first country of entry, and were imprisoned, detained or abused, and subsequently made their way south in search of safety and freedom.

Some refugees who have the required documentation and the right to live in South Africa are even being sent to the Lindela detention centre as our communities will no longer accept them and they cannot remain on the streets in a pandemic.

Lindela, with a history of abuse against detainees, was a detention centre built because there was insufficient capacity in our police cells and prisons - not a place for genuine refugees.

The burgeoning numbers of economic migrants who have flooded over our borders in recent years - estimated at over 4 million - has exacerbated xenophobia in the country.

Genuine refugees in South Africa deserve our protection and our humanity. Their need for human security is no less important than ours, and our society will ultimately be judged by the humanity we show to the most vulnerable.

* Shannon Ebrahim is Independent Media's group foreign editor.

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